Counseling Today, Features

Charter schools: Threat or opportunity?

Jonathan Rollins August 10, 2006

“What if a school counselor was in on the ground floor of designing a public school?” asks counselor educator Robert Urofsky. “What would we do with that opportunity?” Those questions, in combination with his interest in the school reform movement and school choice, led Urofsky to examine whether school counselors had a presence in charter schools.

Urofsky, an assistant professor and school counseling program coordinator in the Counselor Education Department at Clemson University, found that little information existed concerning counseling services in charter schools, so he launched his own national survey to get what he calls a “snapshot picture.” Of the 174 charter schools in 28 states that reported data to Urofsky, 44 percent said they employed school counselors. Many of the remaining schools provided an array of different titles (31 in all) to describe the position of school counselor, including teacher, art therapist, academic adviser and so on. “It’s one of those areas where it’s clear that there is an existing misperception of who school counselors are and what they are capable of doing,” says Urofsky, a member of the American School Counselor Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.

Still, he says it was both gratifying and somewhat surprising to see that a relatively high percentage of charter schools are employing school counselors. Charter schools are oftentimes exempt from the hiring regulations governing traditional public schools. This should raise some concern among counseling professionals that charter schools, which often have tight budgets, will simply elect not to employ counselors. “The school counseling profession really needs to pay attention to charter schools,” Urofsky says. “I don’t think they are going away. I think the numbers are going to continue to grow.”

Charting a growth spurt

According to the U.S. Charter Schools website at www.uscharterschools.org, the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. As of the 2004-2005 school year, more than 3,000 charter schools were serving more than 700,000 students nationwide . In 2004, 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had passed charter school laws, and charter schools were operating in 39 states.

As Urofsky explains, charter schools are just one of the alternatives that have emerged since public school reform started gaining traction in the 1980s. Others include private voucher programs, site-based management, magnet schools and home schooling. Some reformers view the U.S. public education system as a monopoly, Urofsky says, because it has complete say over where students attend school, how resources are dispersed, how the curriculum is taught and so on. Reformers also contend that, in general, public education is failing students and that there is little accountability. “One idea that many reformers share is that all the rules and regulations, all the bureaucracy that has grown up around public schools has stifled innovation and creativity,” Urofsky says.

Charter schools may best be described as hybrid public schools. According to the U.S. Charter Schools website, “A charter school is a nonsectarian public school of choice that operates with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools (not including those governing health, safety and civil rights). The ’charter’ establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment and ways to measure success. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school’s contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor – usually a state or local school board – to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability.”

As with other alternatives to traditional public education, charter schools have both advocates and critics, pros and cons. But Urofsky points out that they have received support both from those on the left and the right of the political spectrum. From a counseling perspective, he admits that exemptions from certain hiring regulations, combined with high capital costs and limited resources, have most likely resulted in some charter schools choosing not to employ counselors.

But Urofsky also sees the other side of the coin. Thanks in large part to the ASCA National Model and efforts by the Education Trust, he believes a clear and consistent vision for the professional identity of school counselors is emerging. However, he points out that these efforts primarily have focused on traditional public education environments. “Charter schools are a new side to public education,” he says. “I think it would be good to get some representation (for school counselors) in the school reform movement, too.”

Because most charter schools are relatively new and generally much smaller than their traditional public school counterparts, Urofsky believes they offer school counselors a prime opportunity. “With many of the typical organizational constraints removed, this may be the chance for school counselors to get in on the ground floor as these schools develop and show the impact that they can have by designing programs,” he says. “They can demonstrate how comprehensive developmental guidance can best work in a school environment.”

The more manageable student-to-counselor ratios should also be a positive for school counselors, Urofsky says. In addition, many charter schools target specific populations, including at-risk students, students from different cultures, students with specific disabilities or college-bound students, meaning that school counselors could also choose to “specialize.”

Urofsky is currently looking for someone to publish data from his snapshot survey of counseling services in charter schools. The survey focused on demographics, employment information and opinions about the provision of counseling-related services in charter schools. He hopes to follow up that survey by looking at qualitative comparisons between counseling experiences in charter schools and traditional public schools. For more information, contact Urofsky at rurofsk@clemson.edu.

Stephanie London, MaST Community Charter School, Philadelphia

After four years of working at a traditional public school in Philadelphia – three as a teacher and one as a counselor – Stephanie London decided she had to make a change. “I just felt tired,” she says. “It felt like there was a crisis there every day. There was so much stress. I liked working with the city families, but I knew I was headed for burnout.”

She wasn’t very familiar with charter schools when she found out that MaST (Math and Science Technology) Community Charter School was looking for a counselor. After doing some research and talking to a few colleagues, she was a little hesitant to pursue a job at a charter school. Some people said charter schools weren’t stable and didn’t compensate counselors as well as their counterparts in traditional schools.

But realizing that she had to make a change and still wanting to remain a counselor in a city school, London decided to take a chance on the charter school environment. Now entering her second year at MaST, it’s a decision she doesn’t regret.

MaST Community Charter serves grades K-12, with London assigned to the roughly 600 students in grades K-6. She is the school’s only counselor for elementary school students, but MaST is also hiring a middle school counselor who will take over her sixth-grade caseload. In her previous job, London had been the only counselor for approximately 900 students in grades K-8. The smaller caseload at MaST makes it easier for her to develop bonds with the students, London says.

In addition, her former school shared a psychologist with two other schools, and London was responsible for handling all the details related to students’ individualized education plans (IEPs). She also served as the school’s liaison for special education. MaST Community Charter has its own psychologist on staff. While London still participates in IEP meetings at her charter school, she isn’t responsible for writing up the plans.

But that’s not the only difference. “I had these ideas that I wanted to do (at my prior job),” she says, “but I couldn’t get the funding or the time or the parental involvement. I had so much paperwork to do. But here, I get to do the counseling that I was trained to do.”

London teaches a guidance lesson in each class once per week, and she has also been allowed to conduct many schoolwide programs. In her first year, she also held a divorce group, a new student group, an anxiety group, a behavior issues group and a schoolwork/homework group, among others. In addition, she was able to coordinate parents’ nights.

“Coming in, I was surprised at how much support I was able to get here,” she says, “both from the teachers and the principal and financially.” Contrary to some of the most frequently cited drawbacks about working in charter schools, London has found funding more readily available to her at MaST Community Charter. She’s able to get all the supplies she needs for counseling programs without hassle, she says. In addition, her charter school paid for her to attend the ACA Convention in MontrĂ©al last spring. And while she could likely make more money in a suburban school based on her two master’s degrees, London says her salary at MaST Community Charter is equal to what she was making at the traditional public school in Philadelphia.

London also believes the charter school environment may be more conducive to effective counseling. Because students and their parents have been allowed to choose the school they prefer, they also tend to feel more invested in the school’s success. (As public schools, charter schools do not charge tuition; according to the U.S. Charter Schools website, most charter schools use a random lottery to choose which students are accepted if they receive more applications than can be accommodated.) “Parents are more involved here,” London says. “They seem more willing to listen to the counselor and work with the school, and the same with the kids.”

London meets regularly with other counselors from charter schools in and around Philadelphia. She’s more aware of the criticisms sometimes leveled at charter schools now than when she first saw the job opening on the website. But based on the conversations she’s had with her counseling colleagues, she thinks her positive experience as a counselor in a charter school is pretty typical. “And a lot of families are going that route,” she says, “so charter schools definitely need counselors.”

Lemuel Graham, South Buffalo Charter School, Buffalo, N.Y.

Unlike Stephanie London, Lemuel Graham can’t draw comparisons between employment in a charter school and working in a traditional public school (although his mother was a public school counselor in Montgomery County, Md.). Now entering his fifth year as a counselor at South Buffalo Charter School, however, he can speak confidently of his charter school experience. He can also speak to Urofsky’s notion that charter schools may offer counselors a “ground floor opportunity” to better exhibit their true value and to design more effective and comprehensive school counseling programs.

Graham began working at South Buffalo Charter during its second year of operation, taking over for another counselor who had gone on maternity leave a few weeks before the close of the year. He noticed quickly that the environment seemed very hospitable to school counselors. The school’s administration allowed and even encouraged counselors to make a difference. “In my school, we’ve been given the opportunity to craft the counseling program the way we want it to be,” says Graham, a member of ACA. “We’ve had principals who have seen what counselors can do and how powerful it can be for the student body.”

South Buffalo Charter has approximately 570 students in grades K-8, with plans to top off at 700. It began with a five-year charter, which has since been renewed. The school emphasizes technology and rigorous academics and buses children in from throughout Buffalo and as far away as 10 miles outside the city limits.

Graham is now the senior member of the school’s three-person counseling team. Even though he tends to work with the older children, Graham says the counselors don’t divide their caseloads according to grade level, preferring instead to “go on the need of the situation.” One of the counselors also serves as a study skills teacher.

The school’s counselors often team up to run groups, Graham says, and also partner with different agencies and community groups to further enhance counseling and developmental activities. In addition, the counseling program uses an animal therapy program in which struggling readers strengthen their skills by reading to a dog because it makes them feel less self-conscious.

The goal of the Connections Program, another initiative launched by the counselors, is to connect the surrounding community with the schoolchildren and vice versa. The counselors bring in people from outside the school to talk with the students. For instance, a judge might discuss why school is important, or members of a “teen reality theater” might dramatize tough situations that students face. The Connections Program also sponsors a career day and takes students on an annual trip to Canisius College so they can see what college is like.

One of the challenges of working in a charter school is that it’s a relatively new environment without many of the standard regulations, Graham says, which means counselors should be prepared to let people know who they are and what their role should be in the school. On the other hand, he says, charter schools seem to allow counselors more freedom to define that role and the role of the counseling program without interference from non-counselors.

Another advantage, at least in Graham’s experience, is the expediency of setting up programs. “We don’t have to jump through too many hoops,” he says. “We’re allowed to be creative and try new things. It’s always a work in progress, and that’s very exciting.” Last year, for instance, the counselors coordinated workshops for parents, one of which discussed discipline and another that covered safe Internet surfing for children.

Graham believes one of the things the charter school’s administration and teachers value most about the counselors is their role as liaisons between the school and the parents. “We (the school counselors) can have a different relationship with the families,” he says. “We can help them understand that we’re on their side and want to work as a team.” The counselors at South Buffalo Charter even make home visits if they have trouble contacting a parent or if it’s difficult for that parent to come to the school.

Graham says the counselors also help teachers at the school bridge some of the things they are doing in the classroom by offering programs on bullying, resiliency, self-esteem, refusal skills, conflict resolution and so on. The charter school also highlights one of its “core values,” such as honesty or respect, each month. The counselors reinforce those core values by doing a lesson on them in the classrooms and the school auditorium. If individual children are having problems with those concepts, Graham says, the counselors pull them out and conduct small groups on those values.

Like London, Graham hasn’t found tight budgets or a lack of resources to be of concern at his charter school. When it comes to funding, the counseling program is allowed to search for its own grants with the assistance of a grant writer who is on staff at the school. South Buffalo Charter also covered the expense of Graham attending the ACA Convention and paid for him to get outside supervision.

Graham acknowledges that some charter schools have had trouble managing their finances (charter schools can have their charters revoked not just for a lack of academic achievement but for poor financial management). However, he says, South Buffalo Charter, which was started by a group of private citizens, has been blessed with a Board of Directors that understands how to run the business side of things.

“My experience in a charter school has been very positive,” Graham says. “It’s been a learning experience in seeing how a school develops, from the curriculum to the needs of the building. It’s allowed me to see something grow from the beginning and have a lot of success.”

Graham says counselors who have additional questions can contact him at lgraham@southbuffalocs.org or 716.826.7213.